In fall of 2015, the Grand Palais in Paris mounted the full-on bore of an exhibition, Picasso.mania. It offered the comfort of such tired clichés as “Picasso is still and always the great artist-hero.”
Worse? The show’s lame proof was all the great—and almost entirely male—artists he influenced: Baselitz, Basquiat, Beuys, Hockney, Johns, Lichtenstein, Miró, Oldenburg, Schnabel, Stella, Tinguely, Warhol. Blah blah blah.
Thankfully, “Picasso Sculpture” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is just the opposite. Here is a sensual, intellectual, and funny bone-tickling exhibition.
This is a show that never leaves you dazed and dying for the café. You ramble, you frolic, you fantasize, and you laugh outright through spacious whitewashed rooms of gorgeous, sometimes troubling, ever seductive objects you cannot tear your eyes from.
The exhibition illuminates the Picasso who was endlessly up-for-fun and adventure, riding the hot rails of his ferocious curiosity, bowing to the lure of the erotic. Always wanting to touch everything.
How does he do it? Or, more to the point, why did he do it? The man was a painter after all, a painter par excellence. Before or after Michelangelo, when was there ever a painter who abandoned himself so wholeheartedly to sculpture?
If that sounds like hero worship, I prefer to think of it as admiration.
By the age of 19 in 1910, Picasso had already robbed his painter father of his professional identity, which the father allegedly handed the son six years earlier.
Later, his work conversed with Braque, Matisse, Léger. Much later it was Manet, Delacroix and Velázquez. Stylistically, he juggled and partied with astonishing panache and confidence. His chums on the voyage were painters, deeply inventive painters.
So, the obvious question is: Why sculpture at all for this virtuoso painter?
In fact, sculpture wasn’t really of much interest to many people. It’s such a palpable form of artistic expression that there’s relatively little to imagine, to conjure up, to bring to life. To be a great artist, you had to be a painter.
Yet, Picasso kept reaching for sculpture, not consistently throughout his life but at particular moments and with great intellectual and physical vitality.
It’s almost as if he needed to make an object in three dimensions—something palpable to figure out the “real.” Whether it was the physical, psychological, or sexual “real,” sculpture acted as Picasso’s laboratory for that investigation.
In the narrative proposed by MoMA’s startling and charming show, Picasso’s sculptural quest starts with an urge towards pulling a figure out of molten, inchoate material rising up from a miasma of emotions.
In early works like Seated Woman (1902), Head (1907), Figure (1907), the subjects, half-buried in stone or wood, push forward like Michelangelo and Rodin’s did.
But in Picasso there’s more of a sense of coming out of a totemic past—the obvious debts to African and Oceanic sculpture—a silent but poundingly resonant past. Here there is also a psychic past, from which Freud pulled out the unconscious.
To make that even clearer, fast-forward a few years to Picasso’s cubist work. In the bronze Head of a Woman (1909), actually a “portrait” of Picasso’s lover, Fernande Olivier, the head breaks apart, cheeks and eyes, brows and mouth travel uncharted paths.
As the great art historian Robert Goldwater (now, alas, better known as Louise Bourgeois’ husband) wrote in What is Modern Sculpture?, “Rounded volumes and continuous surfaces have been flattened into a series of abrupt planes…. One can only guess at their shapes [emphasis mine].”
Picasso manufactured a space never encountered before, illegible and unknowable. The same thing happens in his 1915 Violin, where pieces of the instrument fly off in different directions, cutting loose from a table, a performer, a set rhythmic beat. Where does the violin live? Nowhere, precisely. Where do our thoughts and feelings live? Nowhere, precisely. Perhaps this is where the unconscious lives.
Even as a young artist, Picasso possessed the confidence to let the relationship between his eye and hard-matter obey the instincts of his unconscious. He trusted that the unreadable is where life was, as Freud also believed.
That’s also why humor was so important to Picasso, the way a joke camouflages something else. What’s real, what’s not? Now you see me, now you don’t. Collaged tables, newspapers, women, guitars, glasses skidding across and under and into a wild never-never land. You won’t ever really know and, therefore, will have to live with the immense risk—and excitement—of uncertainty.
Buried in humor are censored, unspoken urges. Picasso needed sculpture to open this discussion.
The urge to see, to realize the physical and emotional, is a libidinous affair. And that drive carried Picasso to this inquiry. I’m not speaking only of sexual desire here, though that mustn’t be discounted. I’m speaking of libidinous drives in the largest sense: what makes your mind soar and wander, and what takes your body on the most surprising trips.
It’s that libido—the urge to live, to comprehend, to fly, to fuck—that explains why so much, a majority, of Picasso’s sculpture relates to women—and, interestingly, not to his two most intellectual companions, Dora Maar and Françoise Gilot. Rather, the women who inspired his sculptures were Olivier, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Jacqueline Roque.
Picasso trips easily from classic forms to stick figures to phallic heads to comic strips to voluptuous updated classical vessels. And all the girls are emphatically different: Vase: Woman (1948); Pregnant Woman (1950); Woman in the Garden (1929-30); Head of a Woman (1931-32).
And in recognition of that diversity of women, let’s finally set aside the foolish accusation against Picasso of misogyny, the claim that he reduces all women to Woman.
Picasso is never guilty of that. The richness of emotional texture in his giant heads of Walter in Head of a Woman alone bespeak an expanse of emotional and visual responses to women, all of it in the phallic and vaginal forms piled one atop the other in those magnificent—and terrifying—heads.
He revels in sexual heat, but fears the loss of self. The desperation in that longing and attachment is present, as well.
Even the early Jester (1905), which started out as a portrait of the poet Max Jacob with whom Picasso is said to have had a flirtation, suggests the erotic motor of Picasso’s sculpture: To fathom, to make, to fuck.
Perhaps, Picasso never took sculpture as seriously as painting. However, that may also explain why sculpture is the medium where Picasso let it all hang out.
Picasso Sculpture runs through February 7 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.